Washington: Sugarcane can be genetically engineered to produce oil in its leaves and stems for biodiesel production, scientists, including one of Indian origin, have found. The modified sugarcane plants also produce more sugar, which could be used for ethanol production, researchers said.
The dual-purpose bioenergy crops are predicted to be more than five times more profitable per acre than soybeans and two times more profitable than corn, they said.
Using a juicer, researchers led by the University of Illinois in the US extracted about 90 per cent of the sugar and 60 per cent of the oil from the plant.
The juice was fermented to produce ethanol and later treated with organic solvents to recover the oil. The team has patented the method used to separate the oil and sugar.
They recovered 0.5 and 0.8 per cent oil from two of the modified sugarcane lines, which is 67 per cent and 167 per cent more oil than unmodified sugarcane, respectively.
"The oil composition is comparable to that obtained from other feedstocks like seaweed or algae that are being engineered to produce oil," said Vijay Singh, Director of the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory at Illinois.
"We expected that as oil production increased, sugar production would decrease, based on our computer models," said Stephen Long, Professor at Illinois.
"However, we found that the plant can produce more oil without loss of sugar production, which means our plants may ultimately be even more productive than we originally anticipated," Long said.
Long leads the research project Plants Engineered to Replace Oil in Sugarcane and Sweet Sorghum (PETROSS).
To date, PETROSS has engineered sugarcane with 13 per cent oil, eight per cent of which is the oil that can be converted into biodiesel.
According to the project's economic analyses, plants with just five per cent oil would produce an extra 123 gallons of biodiesel per acre than soybeans and 350 more gallons of ethanol per acre than corn.